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Peeps be with you: What's working inside one of Colorado's best small town arts scenes

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“Portable Deity” by Larry Terrafranca watches over the Rexton Roundabout. This piece is just one of many public art pieces in Manitou Springs, which has been recognized as having one of the best small town arts scenes in the country.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

MANITOU SPRINGS, Colo. — The walk through downtown Manitou Springs features a retro arcade, a collection of bygone tuberculosis huts, one of the town’s many potable mineral spring water fountains, and a nationally recognized sculpture collection.

The eclectic repertoire along Manitou Springs’ Art on the Avenue collection spans from a “Portable Deity” to “Watt’s New,” a giant, solar-powered light-bulb.

Colorado Voices

How CRANE is creating Colorado’s best small town arts scene

“We’ve been ranked in the best top 10 small art town scenes for two or three years running,” said Audrey Gray, the public art director for the Creative Alliance Manitou Springs (CRANE, formed from CReative AlliaNcE Manitou Springs) which is responsible for financing, displaying, and maintaining the art walk. The designation came from USA Today’s annual “Best Small Town Arts Scene” Readers’ Choice Award.

Manitou Springs moved up to fourth in the rankings in 2023, up from its ninth place spot in 2021 and 2022. Manitou was Colorado’s only contender for all three years.

Gray began working on the Manitou Springs Arts Council board in 2010, and after the council merged with the Manitou Springs Creative District in 2021, she became more directly involved with CRANE.

Since then, Gray has been a central player in facilitating much of the town’s public art projects. Gray emphasized the importance of Manitou Springs’ MACH (Manitou Arts, Culture and Heritage) in installing and maintaining the public art.

“For every dollar of sales tax that Manitou receives, 0.3 cents of that goes towards the MACH tax,” said Gray.

“The community voted in this tax that will be here for eleven more years at least to make sure that these organizations are thriving and to make sure that they get to have the public art that they’re used to having,” she said.

“Germination” by Gregory Fields is one of many public art pieces lining Manitou Avenue.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

The MACH tax replaced an existing city sales tax that was sunsetting in 2019. Public art advocates such as the Manitou Arts Center proposed the Manitou Springs Arts, Cultural, and Heritage (MACH) Initiative, a plan that would re-allocate this sales tax to arts and cultural organizations around the town.

When first put to a vote, the MACH Tax proposal lost by a mere 10 votes. However, the margin was slim enough to trigger a recount, and in November of 2019, the tax passed 1,035 – 1,030.

Four years later, the MACH Initiative remains a driving force in the Manitou Springs creative scene. In 2023, the tax generated about $480,000 in grants that helped support everything from the Miramont Castle, to Māori weaving classes, to Art on the Avenue.

However, two-thirds of that $480,000 goes towards five designated Tier 1 entities: longstanding community institutions like the Carnegie Library, Hiawatha Gardens, and the Manitou Arts Center. That often leaves between $100,000 to $150,000 available to public applicants.

“Last year, I think there was about $130,000 set aside for MACH grants and they had double or triple the amount of applications for that money,” said Gray, “so [the MACH Board] really has a big project every year deciding which programs get funding.”

This funding is critical to CRANE’s duties, which in addition to sourcing and installing new art, includes refurbishing existing public art as well.

Through the combined efforts of Colorado weather and a sometimes handsy Colorado public, much of the art gradually wears down.

One display, the Peeps, a pair of colorful plastic birds displayed along Manitou Avenue, are magnets for young pedestrians.

Liz Szabo’s “Peeps” are irresistible climbing structures for young pedestrians.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

“The Peeps are like this thing that every child that walks by it has to get on,” said Gray. Over time, due to their popularity as climbing objects, the Peeps’ bright blue fiberglass body gets scuffed.

CRANE was able to secure enough funding to recoat the Peeps. However, even their temporary absence drew immediate public outcry. “We had kind of a community almost uprising of people like, ‘Where are the Peeps?’ ‘What have you done with them?’” said Gray.

“It’s really nice to be able to provide something [like this],” she said. “Yeah, it’s like a little part of their day, but they’ll remember Manitou because their kids enjoyed playing on the sculpture.”

Gray is an artist herself and was first drawn to Manitou Springs while seeking creative collaborators.

“The Manitou creative community is great because it’s really welcoming, open, and diverse,” said Gray. “It feels like there’s room for everyone, no matter who you are or what you’re doing.”

Sallie Knox Hall, a Louisiana-born painter who was also drawn to Manitou Springs’ arts and culture scene about eight years ago, experienced a similarly warm welcome.

“Manitou has an accessible art vibe,” said Hall. “You don’t feel intimidated walking into galleries, and everyone’s very welcoming, no matter if you’re a weekend artist or a professional artist.”

Hall applied and received a MACH grant in 2023 to paint a mural at 441 Manitou Avenue. Her themes of animals, music, and community, highlighted by a vibrant color palette, aimed to mirror the similarly vibrant Manitou Springs.

“It just seems like so much in this town is infused with art somehow,” said Hall. “It feels good to have my work in a place that attracted me because of others' artwork.”

Hall began painting in her teenage years but slowed down as she pursued a nursing career and began raising a family. A bout with cancer led her back to her artistic passions, which she used as a means of healing.

“I started using [painting] as a healing mechanism. When I paint… I get into that state of flow, and any opportunity to do that is good for you mentally,” she said.

Hall made it clear that she was not a grant writer, yet with the help and support of the Manitou Arts Center and the MACH Board, she was able to secure enough funding for her “Manitou Vibes,” which now overlooks Manitou Avenue.

Sallie Knox Hall poses with her MACH-grant funded mural “Manitou Vibes.”
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

“It wasn’t difficult. They were really there every step of the way for any questions I had,” said Hall. “I had never done something like this before, and [Gray] helped me with the final coat to make it weather proof. I’m ready to do it again!”

For those interested in participating, the Manitou Arts Center releases annual calls for artists looking to share their work with the community. As the MACH application window closes on January 3, 2024, Hall and Gray are both looking forward to a brightly painted future for Manitou Springs.

“I see art impacting people every day because I’m getting to do this work,” said Gray, “and it’s just really lovely to know that we’re helping the community out, but we’re also supporting the creative people who live here and making sure that they feel good about the work they do for us.”

Sallie Knox Hall (left) and Audrey Gray (right) enjoy a piece along Manitou’s Art on the Avenue.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

For more information about arts and cultural events taking place in Manitou Springs, visit www.manitouartcenter.org.


Chase McCleary is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. Chasemccleary@rmpbs.org.

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